IN ANNOUNCING his intention to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union – should he still be Prime Minister after the next UK general election – David Cameron has lobbed a grenade into the debate on Scottish independence.
Whether he has done this inadvertently is a moot point. Surely it cannot have escaped the Prime Minister’s notice that raising doubt about Britain’s relationship with Europe might have implications for the debate on whether Scotland remains part of Britain ? Surely someone must have pointed out that the independence referendum could now be portrayed by some as a vote to secure Scotland’s place in the European Union?
The likely scenario is that Mr Cameron knows full well the potential confusion his statement sows among anti-independence parties in Scotland, but that this consideration plays second fiddle to his need to stem the haemorrhaging of Tory support in Middle England to the UK Independence Party. In essence, Mr Cameron yesterday put party unity above British unity.
The effect on the Scottish independence referendum campaign will be marked. For one thing, Mr Cameron has now undermined attempts by the pro-UK camp to portray the independence referendum as a damaging distraction from the job of getting Scotland back on track economically. The same arguments used against the SNP – that the push for independence will cause uncertainty and an unwillingness among businesses to invest in Scotland – can now be directed at the UK government. Only its referendum holds four years of distraction.
But perhaps the greater frustration for the Better Together campaign is the way one of their most potent lines of attack against the SNP – the confusion about an independent Scotland’s right of access to the European Union, and the confusion over what legal advice was available to Alex Salmond on this point – has effectively been neutralised.
Now, whenever a pro-UK politician raises the question of Scotland’s status in Europe after a Yes vote, the SNP can justifiably question whether staying in the UK guarantees a future in that same EU.
Additionally, Mr Cameron’s intervention raises the first major constitutional difference of opinion between the three main pro-UK parties in Scotland, with Labour and the Liberal Dems now on one side of the argument on Europe and the Tories on the other. The SNP will exploit this ruthlessly in the weeks and months ahead.
And it gives a further boost to the Yes campaign because there is not the anti-Europe feeling in Scotland that has driven Mr Cameron’s hand, and that highlights another huge area of difference between the two countries.
For now, however, Europe has changed from an issue that was causing real trouble to the Yes campaign, to an issue that helps the Yes campaign and causes trouble for the No campaign.
A work in progress
There were mixed messages in the economic news released yesterday. Scottish exports were up £1.6 billion to £23.9bn, which is a very welcome increase. Also, unemployment was down, including unemployment among the young, which fell by 5,000 and was particularly good news.
But to complicate the picture, employment too was down. How can both employment and unemployment be down? The only sensible explanation is that people have been removing themselves from the jobs market altogether, perhaps because they have lost hope of finding gainful employment.
Nevertheless a mixed message means there is some good news in there, and given the shortage of such a commodity on the economic front we should not quibble with it unduly.
The rise in exports means more work, and more appetite for what we produce. Both are encouraging, and Alex Salmond was quick yesterday to hail a Scottish economy responding to the challenges of the market. “Our exports have literally rocketed,” said the First Minister.
To Mr Salmond’s credit he has done good work in promoting Scotland abroad and developing the kind of business connections that facilitate better international trade.
But there is no better news than the trend on youth unemployment. John Swinney yesterday expressed pleasure that Scotland had “lower youth unemployment, higher youth employment and lower youth inactivity than the UK”. Cause indeed for some satisfaction, and some hope. But with youth unemployment in Scotland still at one in five, we have some way to go before celebrating.